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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Supporting Criminal Justice System Reform in Mexico: The U.S. Role

Clare Ribando Seelke
Specialist in Latin American Affairs

Fostering security, stability, and democracy in neighboring Mexico is seen by analysts to be in the U.S. national security and economic interest. Reforming Mexico’s often corrupt and inefficient criminal justice system is widely regarded as crucial for combating criminality, strengthening the rule of law, and better protecting citizen security and human rights in the country. Congress has provided significant support to help Mexico reform its justice system in order to make current anticrime efforts more effective and to strengthen the system over the long term.

U.S. and Mexican officials assert that fully implementing judicial reforms enacted through constitutional changes in June 2008 is a key goal. Under the reforms, Mexico has until 2016 to replace its trial procedures at the federal and state level, moving from a closed-door process based on written arguments presented to a judge to an adversarial public trial system with oral arguments and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. These changes are expected to help make the system less prone to corruption and more transparent and impartial. In addition to oral trials, judicial systems are expected to adopt means of alternative dispute resolution, which should help them be more flexible and efficient, thereby ensuring that cases that go to trial involve serious crimes.

More than halfway into the reform process, judicial reform efforts in Mexico are at a critical juncture. As of December 2012, 22 of Mexico’s 32 states had enacted new criminal procedure codes (67%), but only 12 states (36%) had begun operating at least partially under the new system. Reform states have seen positive initial results as compared to non-reform states: faster case resolution times, less pre-trial detention, and tougher sentences for cases that go to trial. Daunting challenges remain, however, including counter-reform efforts and opposition from some key justice sector operators (including judges). Although reform efforts have lagged at the federal level, President Enrique Peña Nieto, inaugurated in December 2012 to a six-year term, has said that advancing judicial reform will be a top priority. U.S. policymakers are likely to follow how the Peña Nieto government moves to enact a unified penal code and code of criminal procedure to hasten reform at the federal level and to increase support to states transitioning to the new system.

The United States has been supporting judicial reform efforts in Mexico since the late 1990s, with assistance accelerating since the implementation of the Mérida Initiative in FY2008, an anticrime assistance program for which Congress has provided $1.9 billion. While the Mérida Initiative initially focused on training and equipping Mexican security forces, it now emphasizes providing training and technical assistance to help reform Mexico’s justice sector institutions. Funding for “Institutionalizing the Rule of Law” now dwarfs other types of U.S. assistance to Mexico.

This report provides an overview of Mexico’s historic 2008 judicial reforms and an assessment of how those reforms have been implemented thus far. It then analyzes U.S. support for judicial reform efforts in Mexico and raises issues for Congress to consider as it oversees current U.S. justice sector programs and considers future support to Mexico. Also see CRS Report R41349, U.S.-Mexican Security Cooperation: The Mérida Initiative and Beyond, by Clare Ribando Seelke and Kristin M. Finklea.

Date of Report: March 18, 2013
Number of Pages: 20
Order Number: R43001
Price: $29.95

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